Carroll: There’s nothing wrong with a little sunshine
When The Aspen Times published the salary packages of the most handsomely compensated local nonprofit executives in September, a few readers wondered what the point was. Some asked if we’d like our reporters’ and editors’ salaries to be published for all to see.
If this newspaper were a tax-exempt nonprofit organization, a publicly held company or funded with tax dollars, then that would be a legitimate question. But it’s not.
It’s understandable that some nonprofit leaders were none too thrilled to see the spotlight cast on their compensation packages, but that wasn’t our concern. The point of running the series on nonprofit pay was to inform the public where some of its money is going in a town robust with charities and nonprofits. And tax records for nonprofits, called Form 990s, are public record.
Often, the same can be said for personnel records, whether they involve salaries or the reasons for one’s termination or resignation.
Just recently, two high-profile personnel flaps involving tax-supported entities — the Basalt Police Department and Aspen Valley Hospital — have played out on this newspaper’s front pages.
The matter with BPD concerned last year’s resignation of its chief, Roderick O’Connor. As we continued to report on the matter, we were stonewalled at every turn by government officials who insisted it was a “personnel matter” that would not be discussed beyond the bounds of a canned press release about the resignation, which revealed virtually nothing. O’Connor wouldn’t talk because his hands were tied by a severance agreement.
So, we were left with no choice but to litigate, not so that we could stir up trouble or go on a witch hunt, as some readers suggested, but to actually unearth what happened. The public had a right to know why one if its public-safety leaders had resigned, although Basalt town officials insisted it did not.
Some $45,000 in the Times’ legal fees later, and the rest is history. A judge ordered the release of numerous documents and emails related to O’Connor’s departure, which we reported on and let the readers make up their own minds about. The judge also ordered Basalt to pay our legal bills associated with the matter. Whether the town appeals remains to be seen.
The brouhaha at Aspen Valley Hospital, which is publicly supported in part by a mill levy, came when the facility’s board of elected directors rubber-stamped Dr. Bill Rodman’s firing of another surgeon, Dr. John Schultz.
Unlike O’Connor, however, Schultz wasn’t gagged by any contractual agreements, and he laid out what happened, at least how he perceived it, to one of our reporters. Rodman was in Mexico at the time we broke the news of Schultz’s firing on May 25, and the hospital’s interim CEO, John Sarpa, was initially mum about the exit.
The public, however, was pretty vocal about this one. We were deluged with readers’ letters demanding to know more about Schultz’s firing. At a hospital board meeting last week, both Schultz and Rodman spoke about the matter — apparently the rift is because these two docs just can’t get along.
The two surgeons made the media’s job easy on reporting this story. But that was an exception to the rule.
As a newspaper, we’ve done this dance many times with the government when it comes to rooting out the reason behind a publicly paid employee’s firing, resignation or suspension.
In many instances, the bureaucrats will hide behind the standard line that “it’s a personnel issue,” but that doesn’t always keep them less exposed.
As part of this dance, when we do verbally get denied records, we typically will follow up with a form letter seeking the records under the Colorado Open Records Act. We also ask for a written explanation for the withholding of the records.
If we are denied a second time — we’ve become quite accustomed to rejection — then we’re tasked with deciding how much we want to ramp up our efforts and determining our chances of prevailing.
In the case of Basalt and O’Connor, we believed that there was so much more to this story — with a police chief, no less — that the truth had to come out. And this newspaper’s parent company was willing to take the financial risk because it believed in our cause.
And, once again, it turned out that the cover-up appeared much worse than the crime, one rife with petty squabbles that very well could have been hashed out with a mediator.
The O’Connor and Schultz exits were entirely different when it came to finding out what happened — Basalt dug in its collective heels to conceal what transpired, while the hospital had no choice but to come clean after Schultz played his cards. But both flaps were messy and embarrassing to some degree, like many personnel matters can be.
Public servants and nonprofit leaders might not always be comfortable with news about them that they did not initiate with a press release. But if we were to play by their rules, we’d be their meager accomplice having little relevance in the arena of public discourse.
Rick Carroll is editor of The Aspen Times. He takes comments, complaints, questions and news tips at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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